Russia: Acting Out Democracy as Never Before

On January 15, President Putin held an annual meeting with the Russian government, which is usually a quite unexciting event for both the parliament members and the general public. However, this year’s meeting was preceded with peculiar novelties: Russian media agencies speculated that the recording of the meeting would be aired on outdoor advertising screens in the city-center of Moscow, which is rather strange for such an occasion. As I read this news, what immediately crossed my mind was a scene from George Orwell’s 1984, where Big Brother’s announcement would be displayed on giant “telescreens” all over the nation, and, unfortunately, my apprehension turned out to be not so baseless.

In his long and passionate speech, Putin mainly outlined a proposal for changing the Constitution, which, at first glance, sounded not so detrimental: the primary objective was shifting the balance of political powers from a president’s hands into a prime-minister’s, restricting the number of presidential terms to two (here is a friendly reminder: Putin is currently serving his fourth term), reducing the number of judges in the Constitutional Court, and supposedly making the parliament more influential. To make the upcoming political shifts sound less concerning for the audience, Putin mixed them with usual promises to increase salaries of public workers, improve maternity leave conditions (with the birthrate steadily declining year by year), and encouraged people to stay united and hopeful.

Shortly after the infamous announcement, his plan started to unravel. In less than an hour, Dmitry Medvedev (now ex-prime-minister) announced his resignation, and so did the entire Cabinet, provoking a drastic change in the main executive body. Or at least it seemed so. Normally, such a situation would be rather casual for most European countries, but not in the case of Russia, where the cabinet has never been dissolved in the history of the new Constitution (meaning, since 1993). Some might have interpreted this change as a hint of upcoming positive changes, a sign that Putin will step down for good in 2024 (once the current term is over), however, such assumptions soon proved themselves too jolly to be true.

Within a day, Putin proposed a new candidate for the PM position. A low-profile administrative clerk, ex-head of the Federal Tax Service, Mikhail Mishustin, who has not been spotted in major political scandals or financial frauds; well, up until the day the was nominated. As soon as people realized that he was a dark horse prepared for the specific occasion, within hours new eye-opening facts about his life emerged: turned out, his wife has declared earning hundreds of millions of rubles a year without any traces of owning a private business or holding a high-level job, and his relatives own lavish houses and apartments in affluent neighborhoods despite not having an income that would rationally explain the possession of such property. Although the allegations were quickly debunked and deemed “sabotaging” by the officials, the elephant is in the room – Mishustin is likely to be no different from other oligarch friends of Putin.

Unsurprisingly, the new appointee was unanimously accepted by both chambers of the parliament. And, once again, very promptly, a new Cabinet was formed. Although the dissolution of the previous Cabinet seemed scandalous at first, the true nature of it became apparent once the list of new executives was made public: hardly a third of the old team was removed, and even if so, they were put in less influential positions, yet still kept a great deal of power in their hands. One of the most iconic examples would be Vitaly Mutko, the infamous minister of sports who allegedly orchestrated systematic doping use during the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014. In a democratic state, perhaps, a government official would at least be fired for such misdemeanor and/or face legal charges, but not in Russia! If one is Putin’s buddy, they simply move onto a different position: now, although not a Cabinet member anymore, Mutko is in charge of a governmental agency responsible for improving housing and infrastructure.

Another astonishing example of the officials’ swap plan is Yury Chaika, a former Prosecutor General of Russia. He is mostly known to the public for the enormous corruption scandal, disclosed by the Anti-Corruption Foundation back in 2015. In the documentary, titled Chaika (note: also Russian for “seagull”), ACF claimed that two Chaika’s sons abused the power and connections of their father for tax fraud purposes. Yet again, no competent response had followed from the government, and now Yury Chaika enjoys the title of the Presidential Plenipotentiary Envoy to North Caucasus Federal District – a bit less of a prestigious position than before, but still a nice one.

Wait a minute, and what about the unprecedented changes in the Constitution mentioned earlier? Well, it is evident that the allocation of ministers seems to be directly proportional to their closeness to the Supreme Leader, but the judicial and legislative branches are supposed to be more transparent. Unfortunately, the answer is no. To create the impression of checks and balances, so it would not be too obvious that the constitutional alterations all came from one person (I am leaving it up to you to guess their name), they have created a commission for the preparation of amendments to the constitution, which is composed of… everyone but qualified lawyers. The list includes movie directors (K. Shakhnozarov), notable doctors (L. Roshal), former athletes (E. Isinbayeva, who, as turned out, had not previously read the Constitution in her life), businessmen (E. Kaspersky), and a few parliament members. Frankly, the efficiency and, most importantly, accountability of proposals and comments issued by such a focus group is at least questionable.

Overall, after a month since Putin’s announcement, it appears that what seemed at first an attempt to liberalize and improve the governmental apparatus is, in reality, no more than just a thoroughly-planned move to deceive the public eye. This is shown by the fact that ministers, who were previously caught on frauds and misdemeanors so much that even politically inactive citizens would not tolerate them anymore, were shifted to less prominent positions and replaced by those who have not been investigated by NGOs (just yet).  Moreover, the ambiguous plan for amending the constitution also showcases the general reluctance for following the rigid procedures (especially for organizing the public referendum) and seems like an imitation of democratic representation. Thus, sadly, we can only watch the show unravel and see how, once Putin steps down from the presidency, he might be unanimously elected as a new prime minister who, according to the freshly-amended constitution, will have more political power concentrated in their hands than the next president.

So after all this, one would logically ask: why suffer through the unjust oppression and ineffective governing? If it was possible to overthrow the Soviet regime, why not just revolt against Putin? Born on the verge of the new century, I also could not fully grasp why Russian gen Xes and Millenials had very little motivation to protest against the current regime despite its obvious drawbacks. To understand the roots of such behavior, it is important to look into the historical period preceding Putin’s presidency. Yeltsin’s coup, military unrest in the Caucasian region, occasional terror attacks on civilians, displacement of nations due to changes of borders, and unprecedented economic instability (with rubble fluctuating like a roller coaster) had put Russian society of the 1990s into a vulnerable position. Traumatized by the turbulent events following the break up of the USSR, post-soviet people desperately craved for tranquility, which they gradually received after Putin came into power. Logically, any human would rather opt for gaining a guarantee of life safety and availability of basic resources for maintaining a bearable lifestyle. What they gave up in exchange, however, was much more priceless in the long term: ironically, Russian people completely disregarded the importance of liberal principles they so much desired during Soviet times. In the end, Russians simply settled on enjoying the benefits of the free market and pseudo-democratic political regime, failing to materialize the agenda of the early post-Soviet period.

Leave a Reply